The Stanford Initiative to Cure Hearing Loss: Groundbreaking Work in a Too-Neglected Field

Today is World Hearing Day, an annual global initiative from the World Health Organization to promote hearing care and raise awareness of hearing loss. In honor of this day, I’m going to spotlight an organization doing amazing work in the field of hearing research: The Stanford Initiative to Cure Hearing Loss (SICHL).

I was lucky enough to go to the Stanford campus a few weeks ago to meet with three of the researchers – known as principal investigators (P.I.’s) – and the development director of SICHL. I gleaned so much great information that I’ll be writing a SICHL series. For now, I’d start by introducing the organization and their mission.

SICHL was founded 14 years ago by Dr. Robert Jackler, department chair, and Dr. Stefan Heller, a research professor in the otolaryngology department at Stanford University School of Medicine. Dr. Heller’s research career has focused on finding a cure for deafness.

In 2006, when asked in a development meeting if there was anything that would help his research, Dr. Heller said, “Well, if someone could give us 200 million dollars, we could cure deafness in 10 years.” This led to the formation of SICHL and the recruitment of additional inner ear researchers. There are currently six P.I.’s in SICHL who each have their own lab with post-doctoral students who help conduct their studies, as well as the development director who handles fundraising.

One of the unique aspects of SICHL is that each P.I. has an area of specialty – and together, they can make faster progress on their studies because of this. Of the three P.I.’s I interviewed, Dr. Heller’s expertise is in stem cells, Dr. Nico Grillet’s is in genetics, and Dr. Tony Ricci’s is in electrophysiology. “We have experts in different aspects of this [hearing] research,” said Grillet. “And I don’t see any other center that has this.”

The SICHL labs, in one of the Stanford School of Medicine buildings, are situated in a way that fosters collaboration as well. “There’s a rare co-location here, which is very unusual at an academic medical center,” says Dr. Cliff Harris, SICHL’s development director. “There’s a department of physics and engineering, chemistry, and biology, and they are within 100 yards of where we are in the medical school.”

Recruiting qualified Stanford students to help in the P.I.’s labs is core to the success of the organization. “Training the next generation of scientists to be better than us is really important,” says Ricci. “And having resources to put into that is also really important.”

The SICHL researchers have multi-pronged approaches to examining hearing loss. This includes trying to understand how animals, such as birds, can re-grow their damaged inner ear cells, something humans cannot do; seeking ways to stimulate mammalian hair cells to regenerate, currently being done in mice; inventing immensely powerful microscopes to take incredibly detailed photos of hair cells and even watch hair cells in action transmitting sound in a live animal, in order to understand how genetic mutations cause hearing loss; using sophisticated computer modelling to design new experiments that will reveal the intricate functioning of the cochlea; studying fish with transparent brains to peer into the inner ear of animals with similar genetic hearing loss mutations to humans; and devising ways to avoid the hearing loss caused by toxic medications such as chemotherapy and certain antibiotics.

To conduct these experiments takes money – and donations of all sizes are greatly appreciated. Also, larger donations are fantastic because the team can leverage those funds across the various SICHL labs to make collaborative, transformational advances. You can donate to SICHL or learn more about their mission. Or for more details about how your gift can make a difference, email Dr. Cliff Harris at cliff.harris@stanford.edu.

In my next blog post, I’ll be delving deeper into the science of hearing research – and why despite the headlines, a cure probably isn’t just around the corner (but there’s still a lot of exciting stuff happening!).

When Will There Be a Cure for Hearing Loss?

It’s the dream of many (though not all) with hearing loss: a cure for deafness — a way to restore natural hearing, or provide it to some for the first time.

So far, it’s been elusive, and progress seems to move slowly. Partly this is because hearing loss is not easily corrected the way faulty vision can usually be with glasses or contact lenses. While hearing aids have gotten more sophisticated, they still can’t come close to replicating normal hearing, particularly in noisy environments.

However, I think the larger issue is the societal attitude towards hearing loss. It is mostly ignored, seen as an inevitable part of aging, or treated as a personal fault of the patient (“Just listen to me!”). Because it is not taken seriously, the research has not been well-funded or seen as urgent.

It’s surprising to me that in this day and age, advances towards a cure are mostly contained in the realm of non-profits and academia. Some notable organizations include the Stanford Initiative to Cure Hearing Loss in California, Massachusetts Eye and Ear in Boston, and the Hough Ear Institute in Oklahoma. They need outside funding in order to continue their work, meaning they are reliant on donors. As I’ve written before, the NIH doesn’t even list hearing loss as a condition it funds, despite the fact that it’s the third-most common chronic health condition in the U.S.

More recently, some hearing loss research methods have been patented and for-profit companies formed. The Wall Street Journal covered this last year — such companies include Decibel Therapeutics, Frequency Therapeutics, and Akuous, which are all based in Boston.

What is keeping progress from moving forward? This is something that I’ll seek to keep writing about. It’s on the mind of many those with hearing loss, who don’t want to hear that “someday” this will happen. “Someday” can be soon — if more people prioritize hearing loss as a fully curable condition.